For over 15 years I have taken piano lessons from a teacher who schooled my daughter from an early age, helping her become an outstanding classical pianist. Two days ago she died suddenly from a heart attack. While a few years older than I, her overall health appeared good. I have seen her every week once or twice and last week she appeared as she ever did–energetic, vibrant, focussed. We chatted about the changes and challenges in our lives, about the state of the world, and worked on improving my mediocre piano skills. I had no forewarning that this would be the last time I spoke with her.
Pat was a force of nature. Her students routinely took first place at recitals and contests. She was strict and a perfectionist taskmaster. She insisted that students push themselves to find their best; beyond what they may have conceived possible. In an undisciplined and frivolous world, she taught the value of hard work and the rewards of self-satisfaction from accomplishment and a task well-performed. She gave not just the appreciation of music but the joy of being able to create it. Many, many lives were enriched by her life’s work.
What the death of someone close means to those who go on living is quite concrete; you will not be interact with them again. It is a removal of contact. The synapses that are triggered and reinforced by that contact with a specific person will now decay, and only memories linger, due to gradually fade. When death is sudden, there is no opportunity to prepare for that loss of contact. It is a staggering, stunning blow which can be assimilated only over a long stretch of time.
I always wonder too, did the person have any inkling that they were living their last few days? If you did, what would you do different? A prisoner sentenced to death knows, but has limited freedom of action. How strange it seems to have a conversation with someone with neither party aware that it will be their last.
The essence of being human is the curse of awareness; self-awareness. We evolved a duality of consciousness which engenders an awareness of our thoughts, our actions, our mortality. The evolutionary benefit of this awareness is dubious, although it is a feedback mechanism which, if engaged, allows improvement of behavior. Scientists refer to this field as “meta-cognition”, a fascinating study. I suspect an impish and careless God gifted us with this capability to ensure that our lives were tortured by this awareness of mortality ever under the surface.
Neither I nor anyone else knows what comes after death. I suspect it is merely an end of awareness. The little voices in our head that talk to each other, that compose our selves, that monitor our selves, cease being heard. The first thing we are unaware of is that end of awareness. Our time is short; anyone in my age range knows how fleeting it is. We all know the abjurations to live every moment; but none of us believe we are truly nearing the end, and for many, as with Pat, the end is sudden; unexpected.
We the living must struggle on, trodding familar footpaths, peering occasionally into unexplored woods wherein lurk hidden dangers or delights, hoping for the company and comfort of like pilgrims on the unasked for journey. We are governed by ancient emotions that are largely ungovernable even with our capacity for self-awareness. We must find a purpose, a meaning, or we are dragged into the depths of despair, of desolation, we seek oblivion through drugs or alcohol, we distract ourselves with hollow, unfullfilling pursuits.
Rest in peace, Pat, your struggle is over. Ours too will end.